Visible Women

Painting vandalised by suffragettes goes back on display in London

Posted by
Moya Crockett

The portrait of Robert Carlyle was slashed by Anne Hunt in 1914.

The practice of attacking artwork as a political protest has a fascinating modern history. In 1964, members of the anti-authoritarian Situationist Movement decapitated a statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Ten years later, a woman took a can of spray paint to the Mona Lisa at a gallery in Tokyo, in protest at the gallery’s lack of disabled access. And in 2013, Fathers4Justice activists vandalised two paintings, one in London’s National Gallery and one at Westminster Abbey.

But despite these late-20th century and 21st century contenders, perhaps the most notorious art vandals of all were the British suffragettes. And now, one of the paintings famously slashed by women fighting for the right to vote is going back on display in London.

The portrait of Thomas Carlyle, by pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais, was on display at the National Portrait Gallery in July 1914 when it was attacked by suffragette Anne Hunt (also known as Margaret Gibb). Her choice of weapon – a meat cleaver, smuggled in under her clothes – led to her being dubbed the “fury with a chopper”, a “hatchet fiend”, and a “wild woman”.

The painting is now being shown once more at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), along with a photograph of the damage caused by Hunt and other paintings and photos related to the women’s suffrage movement.

The display is part of a new exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act – the legislation that gave some women in the UK the right to vote for the first time. 

A year-long Rebel Women season at the Gallery will focus on “the contemporary relevance of active citizenship, political engagement and the ongoing battle for equality”.

The portrait of Robert Carlyle as it looks today, left, and a photograph of how it looked after being slashed by Anne Hunt in 1914, right. 

Hunt was arrested for damaging Millais’ painting, and sentenced to six months in jail. At her trial, she argued (with some prescience) that the artwork would be “of added value and of great historical importance because it had been honoured by the attention of a militant”.

She was released from prison after just six days, and boldly attempted to re-enter the NPG again just one month later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was spotted by guards and barred from any future visits.

Hunt’s attack on the portrait of Carlyle followed the jailing of Emmeline Pankhurst in June 1914. The suffragette leader had been arrested and sent to Holloway Prison after she attempted to deliver a petition to King George V at Buckingham Palace, sparking a wave of fresh militant action by her fellow suffragettes. (The photo at the top of this article shows her being arrested outside the palace.)

Surveillance photographs of suffragettes were handed to staff at the National Portrait Gallery

One newspaper from the time reported that “a young and stylishly gowned suffragette” had taken a hatchet to three paintings and an attendant at the Dore Gallery on New Bond Street, “severely injuring” the man and destroying a “priceless engraving” by the Italian artist Francesco Bartolozzi.

The woman dropped a letter at the gallery explaining her mission, which was recovered after her arrest.

“We have tried all other ways,” she wrote. “We have been too ladylike in the past. Now we are going to fight, and you can allow us to be killed. Others will arise to take our places. I have joined in the war.”

Earlier in 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson smuggled a meat cleaver into the National Gallery and slashed the Rokeby Venus, a painting by Diego Velázquez. Again, her action was ostensibly provoked by another arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Richardson – who would, in a disturbing turn of events, later become a fascist disciple of Oswald Mosley – was sentenced to six months in jail for her strike on the painting, which shows a naked woman reclining with her back to the viewer.

In a statement to the Women’s Social and Political Union shortly after her trial, Richardson said: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” 

Diego Velázquez’s painting, the Rokeby Venus, was slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Galleries and museums in London went to extreme measures to try to prevent suffragettes from damaging their artworks. At the National Portrait Gallery, women visitors were required to leave their muffs, bags and parcels in the cloakroom, making it more difficult for them to smuggle in weapons. 

Surveillance photographs of suspected suffragettes were also given to gallery guards so that they knew who to watch out for.

The British Museum, meanwhile, banned all women visitors unless they were accompanied by a man who promised to take responsibility for their actions. Other museums and galleries banned female visitors entirely.

Votes for Women! is open now in Room 33 of the National Portrait Gallery, and runs until 13 May. Admission is free.

For more exhibitions and events celebrating the 100th centenary of women gaining the right to vote, see our 2018 feminist calendar.

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.  

Images: Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery / Rex Features